The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
LAOS – MILITARY
On this page:
- Military Capability
- Doctrine and Practice
- Strategic Cooperation
The Lao People’s Armed Forces (LPAF) includes the Lao People’s Army (LPA) and has around 30,000 active-duty troops including the Riverine Force, the Air Force of 4,000 personnel, and Self-Defence Militia Forces. The military force transitioned from guerrilla army to a conventional military organisation following the communist takeover of the landlocked country in 1975.
The military is tasked by the constitution to defend the gains of the revolution and the achievements of LPRP rule. The constitution says little about civil-military relations and political control over it. The LPRP's own statute clearly states that its political leadership over the military (and other security forces) emanates from the LPRP Central Committee's Defence and Public Security Commission (DPSC) and that the DPSC maintains direct, united, and full control of the LPAF. The DPSC is the highest decision-making institution regarding military and security affairs within the party and controls the operations of the Lao People’s Armed Forces. Additionally, the President is the commander-in-chief of the Lao People’s Armed Forces.
Together with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the Government, the Lao People’s Army is the third pillar of state machinery, and as such is expected to suppress political and civil unrest and similar national emergencies faced by the government in Vientiane.
Serving one of the world’s least developed countries, the LPAF is small, poorly funded, and ineffectively resourced. Its mission focus is border and internal security. From 2013 to 2017 the amount of Laotian gross domestic product (GDP) spent on the military was only 0.2%, amounting to US$18.5 million. However, Laos has not officially announced a defence budget since 2015. Laos had the smallest defence budget in Southeast Asia, but it is also one of the region’s poorest countries. Since 1975, Laos relied heavily on Vietnamese and Soviet military aid and the loss of these funds by the early 1990s affected military capabilities. Thus, maintenance of the armed forces has become more difficult. To solve financial problems, attempts are made to increase the armed forces' self-sufficiency. In 1994, for instance, it was decided that the armed forces should in future be responsible for growing their own vegetables for their daily consumption.
The LPAF is armed largely with weapons from Vietnam and the Soviet Union. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the armed forces were re-equipped with new military hardware, including MiG jet fighters from the Soviet Union. Despite the influx of new equipment, however, the bleak economic situation of the country prevented the allotment of a large enough military budget for a modern fighting force. To fill the growing gap in military support from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union and unable to update aging equipment and technology, the LPA embarked on private business ventures to support itself. In the early 1990s, aging equipment and lack of funds prevented further modernisation efforts. Since 2010, China and Russia are the leading suppliers of military equipment to Laos, yet heavy weapons of the Army are primarily remnants from the former Soviet Union. Some sources report that neither the Air Force nor the Riverine Force have any machines with fighting capabilities.
Conscription has existed ever since the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975. The present legal basis of conscription is the 1994 Law on Military Service. There is an obligation for conscript service of 18 months minimum for males 18 to 27 years old. The ground forces are the primary destination for draftees as the other smaller services seem to get sufficient numbers of voluntary recruits to fill their ranks. The following video by Defence Forces poses the question: how powerful is Laos?
By 1976 the LPA was organised along North Vietnamese military lines, with approximately 42,500 personnel in sixty-five infantry battalions, divided among four military regions. By 1994, the LPA numbers had dropped. The Lao People's Army headquarters in Vientiane controlled all four military regions, which in turn are responsible for LPA elements in the provinces. The LPA ground component consisted of five infantry divisions: the First Division is situated in the Vientiane area; the Second Division monitors the Laos-Thailand border and north-central Laos; the Third Division monitors the Laos-China border; and the Fourth Division and Fifth Division patrol southern Laos. The small arms utilised mostly by the Laotian Army are the Soviet AKM assault rifle, PKM machine gun, Makarov PM pistol, and the RPD light machine gun. They have up to 30 main battle tanks and the artillery is equipped with mortars (size 81, 82 or 120 mm).
In 1974, the Lao People's Navy was established from the remnants of the Royal Lao Navy. Composed of approximately 20 United States-made river patrol boats and 16 amphibious landing craft. By the 1990s the entity was more often referred to as the Army Marine Section and is now known as the Riverine Force, an element of the LPA. It is unclear when the name change was made and just how it affected the service's command and control. As with the Lao People's Air Force, Vietnamese advisers helped organise the force and trained Laotian cadre in river operations and boat maintenance. The force is responsible for maintaining the security of inland waterways, which previously included controlling the movement of resistance forces from their sanctuaries in Thailand across the Mekong River. In the early 1980s, the Navy received six used Soviet Shmel patrol boats and at least 12 more river patrol boats, bringing its total inventory to around 31 patrol boats. By mid-1994, the Navy had fewer than 50 river patrol boats and continued to provide a marginal level of security for inland waterways. This number likely included some number of riverine craft supplied by the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, though these craft had also likely had the benefit of significant overhauls. The current Riverine Force also has a small number of landing craft and up to 16 patrol boats – also likely remnants of U.S. military aid. By 2021, no noticeable changes had been made to the equipment or structure of the Riverine Force, which continues to be the smallest of the services. Information on the numbers, types and serviceability of ships in the Force's current inventory remain sparse.
The Air Force is descended from the Aviation Laotienne, which was established by the French colonial empire and later became the Royal Lao Air Force. Pathet Lao guerrilla forces and other rebel groups began to operate a few aircraft from 1960. The communist take-over in 1975 resulted in the adoption of the present title, as well as the possession of the Royal Lao Air Force inventory of 150 United States-made aircraft from T-28 ground attack to UH-34 helicopters. Few of these aircraft are still in use, replaced in the 1990s with approximately twenty-nine MiG-21s armed with AA-2 Anab air-to-air missiles that provided Laos with a credible air defence against its neighbours and principal adversaries: Cambodia and Thailand. However, the MiG-21 force, assessed as moderately capable in the mid-1980s, deteriorated from age and poor maintenance and funds for replacing aircraft were not available. During the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, the availability of serviceable aircraft in the Lao Air Force declined across the board, with few additions to the fleet. By 2012, the country's MiG-21 fleet had reportedly been grounded entirely, leaving it without any combat capable fixed wing aircraft. What additions that were made to the service, which had remained of a constant size in terms of personnel, were largely to the rotary wing fleet, including the addition of four Z-9A helicopters from China and two Ka-32 helicopters from Russia. Limited funds meant that modernisation prospects for the force remained low by 2010. The Air Force is considered to be a relatively small force and is rarely mentioned in the global media. For this reason, the Lao Air Force is very mysterious to the Lao people and international military experts. However, the recent addition of four Yakolev Yak-130 jet trainers (capable of being used as a light combat aircraft) from Russia have boosted the military's capabilities, with another six on the way.
There is minimal information concerning the Self-Defence Militia Forces overseen by the LPA. This service consists of local forces operating on a part-time basis at the village level as a people's militia. Estimates put the number at 100,000 people spread around the country in small communities trained to support the Lao People's Army in local defence. To learn how Laotian military forces compare to the rest of Asia, watch the following video.
Access the resources below for more details on the little-known Laotian military forces.
- The National Interest | This Secret U.S. Military Base Fell to the Enemy - Vietnamese Commandos
- Asia Pacific Defense Journal | Laos receives 4 new Yak-130 armed trainer jets from Russia
- Defense World | China Offering J-10 Fighters to Laos, Bangladesh as Rival to Russian Yak-130 Aircraft
- Laotian Times | Military Sheep Farming Program Continues in Xieng Khouang
- Laotian Times | Russia Provides Military Engineering Vehicles to Laos
- Laotian Times | Fireworks, Parades, Military, Political Milestones: Lao People's Army at 70
Doctrine and Practice
In a 20 January 1976 broadcast, government authorities outlined five principal tasks for the LPA in defending the nation against Thai reactionaries and exiled Laotian counterrevolutionaries. The first task was to heighten vigilance in preserving peace and public order. The second was to raise political and ideological understanding in the armed forces, improve discipline, and implement government policy. The third and fourth tasks were to reinforce traditions of solidarity with the people and raise the quality of the army through political and military study. Finally, the army was called upon to strengthen its organisation and improve internal defence.
Laos has historically faced a number of unique challenges in national defence and internal security stemming from its central landlocked position in mainland Southeast Asia and its stronger neighbours. This continued to be true after the Revolutionary Party came to power and proclaimed the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) in December 1975. By mid-1994, however, Laos had succeeded in stabilising its relations with its neighbours and so faced no immediate foreign threat and only a small continuing internal threat. Yet, the LPDR’s military planners, particularly under dry season conditions, cannot treat the threat of Thai intervention across the Mekong River lightly. At the same time, the ease of Vietnamese infiltration through the Annamite Mountains was thoroughly demonstrated during the years of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which led across south-eastern Laos into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
Laos is geopolitically vulnerable and surrounded by neighbours that are more powerful. Its closest foreign ally has been Vietnam, with whom it inked an ongoing mutual defence pact, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, in July 1977. Laos is also on close terms with China, whose long-term interest in Laos is to limit Vietnam's ambitions in Southeast Asia while sharing with Hanoi and Vientiane (Viangchan) a common aim in maintaining Marxist-Leninist single-party regimes in power. The following video explores contemporary Laotian military power.
Other factors contribute to the vulnerability of Laos. The underdeveloped state of the economy and the lack of adequate means of transportation and communication encourage regionalism, which facilitates insurgent movements against the government. Additionally, the mountains and jungles of Laos provide an ideal environment for guerrilla warfare because the terrain and lack of infrastructure inhibit the concentration of military forces to counter guerrilla action. Such forces, moreover, expose themselves to ambush in narrow mountain defiles if guerrillas control the surrounding high ground. There are few places in Laos where a conventional army does not risk a siege such as that of the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. If the insurgents have bases outside permeable borders, they are virtually secure from pursuit and are able to mount raids with impunity.
However, the LPAF’s focus on internal security means the internal suppression of Laotian dissident and opposition groups. This includes the suppression of the 1999 Lao Students Movement of Democracy demonstrations in Vientiane, and in countering ethnic Hmong insurgent groups and other groups of Laotian and Hmong people opposing the one-party Marxist-Leninist LPRP government and the support it receives from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The LPAF and its military intelligence play a major role in the arrest, imprisonment and torture of foreign prisoners in Vientiane's notorious Phonthong Prison. In 2013, attacks by the LPA against the Hmong people intensified. Human rights violations committed by the Lao military include kidnapping, rape, torture, extrajudicial killing and attacks against civilians; in one case, soldiers killed four unarmed Hmong schoolteachers.
Since 1975, Vientiane has maintained a special relationship with Hanoi. Formalised on 19 July 1977 when the leaders of Laos and Vietnam signed three treaties, giving formal status to the close relationship that has developed between the two communist neighbours since the end of the Indochina war. The accords, one of friendship and cooperation, a second providing for Vietnamese economic assistance to Laos, and the third defining the Vietnamese-Laotian border, were all signed in Vientiane by the Communist Party leaders and prime ministers of the two countries. Thus, the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation binds together Vientiane and Hanoi in the cause of socialist construction and national defence. The success of the alliance in the post-Cold War world is due to shared security interests and common political values. Hanoi perceives Vientiane not simply as a security partner, but also a comrade-in-arms. It is natural that the two nations have affirmed their party-to-party ties as much as the military relationship.
The Treaty is much more than its name implies, because it gives Vietnam almost complete freedom in the internal affairs of Laos, especially in the military. Vietnamese military forces have been continuously present in Laos since 1961, if not earlier. The strength of these forces has varied over the years from 30,000 to 50,000 troops in the 1975-83 period, to several hundred advisers in late 1987. In November 1988, the LPDR Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally announced that all Vietnamese troops had been withdrawn from Laos. Although intelligence sources initially doubted the claim of total withdrawal, later they reportedly confirmed that it was true. Indeed, there was no Vietnamese presence in the two border conflicts between Laos and Thailand in the late 1980s.
The Laotian leaders said the defence tie is a significant pillar in the friendship between the two Parties, States, armies, and people. Efforts are continually directed to the improvement of the relationship – such as successful boosting of delegation exchanges, Vietnam-Laos border development, personnel training, and COVID-19 prevention and control. The respective Party leaders have agreed to make next year the 'Year of Friendship and Solidarity between Vietnam-Laos, Laos-Vietnam 2022'. To learn more about the defence relationship, watch the VTV World report below.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) superpower extended its presence in Burma, Laos, and Cambodia through political and economic aid, as well as through the considerable influence that its treaty ally, Vietnam, exercised on the Indochina Peninsular. Broadly, the Soviet presence in Southeast Asia was characterised by caution and avoidance of undue risks as the region did not occupy its central focus. Except for Vietnam, Soviet Union’s links to the region were weak throughout the Cold War period. Connections between the LPDR increased after the takeover in 1975 when the landlocked country came under their sphere of influence, but this relationship halted in the 1990s and the post-Soviet period.
In building bilateral ties in Southeast Asia, the Russian Federation has had to deal with a distinct historical disadvantage. Russia has signed the declarations of strategic partnerships with only Laos and Vietnam, as well as one with Indonesia in the pipeline. The Declaration on Strategic Partnership in the Asia Pacific Region 2011 has formalised a close defence relationship that extends across several realms, including military education, law enforcement cooperation, and the purchase of military equipment. 2019 saw the first joint military exercise, LAROS-2019, between Russia and Laos. In another program, a special group of Russian de-miners cleared an airstrip from more than a thousand pieces of unexploded ordnance left by the U.S. between 1964 and 1973. Now Moscow will help Vientiane upgrade the military airfield, bringing new supplies and advanced military technologies, and providing training to the country’s armed forces.
These developments, resulting from different military and technical cooperation agreements signed with Southeast Asian states, signal an increased Russian interest in the region. This is a departure from the former period when arms sales were the sole dimension of Russia’s defence relations on the Indochinese Peninsula without any kind of broad-based cooperative framework. This alone was not enough to build a foundation of strong relations within the region given its one-dimensional nature. For more information on Laos-Russian security relations, check out the following video.
Although situated on China's doorstep, Laos has never been threatened by their northern neighbour. Yet China's influence is growing in Laos and defence linkages are growing. The public security ministries of China and Laos have decided to intensify efforts to crack down on cross-border crimes and strengthen cooperation on law enforcement. The consensus was reached after the first-ever ministerial meeting on law enforcement cooperation between the two countries was held in Vientiane. Both sides agreed to jointly intensify the efforts to crack down on telecommunications fraud, cross-border human trafficking and illegal immigration; and strengthen cooperation in safeguarding national security, anti-terrorism, and immigration management.
The two countries will also establish the security cooperation mechanism for major projects under the frame of China's proposed Belt and Road Initiative in Laos, increase joint border patrols and management, and deepen the law enforcement and security cooperation along the Mekong River. China and Laos will strengthen anti-drug cooperation by enhancing information and intelligence exchanges and case-handling cooperation at this regard, continue to promote the operations to fight against the drug-related crimes along the Mekong River, and establish and improve the cooperation mechanisms between local law enforcement authorities of the two countries. To learn more about Laos’ security ties, explore the following resources.
- BTI Blog | Cambodia, Laos and their involuntary contribution to a new era in Southeast Asian security cooperation
- Phnom Penh Post | Kingdom, Laos talk security
- ASEAN News | Vietnam, Laos bolster security cooperation
- The Diplomat | Vietnam’s Sole Military Ally
- The Diplomat | What’s in the New Russian Military Facility Chatter in Laos?
- Vientiane Times | Laos, Russia agree to cement ties, broaden cooperation
- VnExpress International | China, Laos increase security cooperation after attacks on Chinese
- CGTN | China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand begin 111th joint Mekong River patrol
- The Laotian military is one of the most poorly equipped and funded forces in Southeast Asia. Although its foreign relationships remain strong, there is a risk that a regional arms race or increasing tensions might make Laos susceptible to foreign influence, especially from nations that might offer military aid and support on a quid pro quo basis. What can regional nations do to ensure that Laos retains sovereignty in such circumstances?
- Australia and Laos have never maintained strong military ties. Is there scope for the ADF to conduct training or operational activity in conjunction with Laotian forces? What are the potential cultural issues that might impede such opportunities? How might such activity be viewed in the region, especially by Vietnam and China?
- China and Laos have recently looked to expand security arrangements, ostensibly to deal with cross-border crime and smuggling issues. What are the opportunities and risks for regional stability of such activities when looking at the broader geo-political activities?